What are we to do when sports figures gambling, threats against players and annoying advertisements plague us?

June 16, 2024 10:03 AM
Photo: Shutterstock
  • Ken Adams, CDC Gaming Reports
June 16, 2024 10:03 AM
  • Ken Adams, CDC Gaming Reports

What do Ippei Mizuhara, Tucupita Marcano, Pat Hoberg, Jontay Porter, David Fletcher and Felipe Hernández have in common?  They all are people employed in professional sports who gambled on sports and were caught or are being investigated. They join an elite club of baseball, football, hockey, soccer and basketball players, coaches, staff and officials, both college and professional, who were in the frying pan.  Probably close to 100 have been penalized, suspended or even banned for life from their games for betting on sports.  Of those, only two or three were accused of attempting to influence the outcome of a game or games.

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Prior to 2018 when the Supreme Court opened the door to legalized sports betting, sports figures gambled and were caught and penalized.  The stories made headlines, but they were not seen as threatening to the sport itself.  However, now that legal, regulated sports betting has exploded, that gambling gets more attention.  Each story leads to speculation about  the integrity of sports and questions the need for greater regulation.

The heightened scrutiny is not surprising given the amount of money involved.  In six years, 38 states have legalized some form of sports gambling.  Not all states report wagering activity, but from the 32 that do, legal wagers have exceeded $360 billion, and the gross gaming revenue is over $30 billion.  At the same time, billions more have been invested in the business of sports betting, including the companies that take the wagers, the media companies broadcasting the games, the leagues and the individual teams.  The speed with which sports gambling spread across the country is stunning.  No one anticipated it; and probably without the surprise development of mobile or remote wagering, sports wagering would not have been as large or controversial.

And controversial it has become.  Besides the exposure of gambling athletes, the advertising associated with sports betting has generated a great deal of debate.  There have been calls to limit sports gambling advertising at the state and federal level. Those initiatives are seemingly gaining traction.  There is also a movement gaining traction, led by the NCAA and adopted by several state gaming regulators, to limit or eliminate prop bets on college athletes.  Prop bets are wagers on individuals or events within a game and not contingent on the outcome of the game.  Prop bets are the bread and butter of bookies.

The NCAA says players are at risk to being influenced when their efforts might affect the outcome of a wager.  The NCAA also says players are being harassed and threatened by gamblers because of prop bets. Professional athletes also are subject to threats.  In a USA Today article, Arizona Diamondbacks closer Paul Sewald shared his experiences. “You blow a save, you don’t come through, you get it all. ‘You cost me all of this money. I’m going to kill you and then kill your family.’ It’s scary, and it’s sad,” Sewald said.

As sports betting grows, so do the issues that are problematic.  The lead problem is the athletes and others associated with a sport betting, or attempting to alter the outcome of games to suit other bettors.  In second place and gaining speed, are the threats to athletes, coaches and officials by disgruntled gamblers.  In third place is advertising. The ubiquitous gambling advertisements of the football season are resting. They will return to the  headlines with the beginning of the NFL season this summer.

Athletes gambling, threats to athletes and annoying advertising have each led to calls for better regulation.  In the complicated and complex world of sports wagering regulation is even more complicated.  Unlike many other countries, laws governing gambling and sports gambling here are state, not national laws.  That was the essence of the Supreme Court decision in 2018 – gambling is a states’ rights issue.  Automatically that means it would take 38 different state legislatures to pass laws to address one or all three of theses issues.

For 38 states to recognize a specific problem, draft and pass legislation and to receive the approval of the governor would take two or three years.  In some states, the regulatory agency charged with oversight of sports gambling might pass regulations to solve the problem.  But that too would take time.  So, what would inspire all 38 states to take action; or for Congress to pass some overarching legislation? That of course is the $10,000 question. The answer varies by the week and the news cycle.

In his 1986 book Gambling and the Law, I. Nelson Rose speculated it would take a major scandal to reverse the legalization and liberalization of gambling laws of the 20th century.  When the case of Ippei Mizuhara broke, it seemed his employer, the baseball super star Shohei Ohtani, might be involved.  Ohtani is said to be the best player in baseball today.  If Ohtani was gambling on his sport and his games that would have created a major scandal.  Whether it would have been enough to galvanize enough political support to change gambling laws everywhere is debatable and unlikely.

The diversity of the sports gambling laws in the country acts as a governor on any trend; it is a shield against knee jerking.  Each state is different in its internal politics and attitudes.  In some states, the Democratic Party supports gambling and gaming expansion and the Republican Party opposes it.  In other states, the opposite is true. In every state, each legislative session has different issues and priorities.  A scandal would have to have a two- or three-year shelf life to overcome those barriers to change. That does not mean that laws limiting sports betting advertising will not be passed; it is certain they will. When football returns, and FanDuel and DraftKings return to the airwaves, political opposition also will return.

It is also likely that the NCAA, maybe with the support of the  professional sports leagues, will make significant progress on limiting the types of bets that are accepted. It is also likely that some states will pass laws giving athletes additional protection from disgruntled bettors.  The sports leagues and associations also are in agreement with preventing athletes from gambling.  Those initiatives will help.  They won’t answer the critics that want to ban sports gambling. But nothing short of federal legislation will satisfy those people, and that is not likely to happen anytime soon.